(CN) – President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty in a Washington, D.C. courtroom Friday morning to willfully and knowingly making “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador.
Flynn is the first official to hold a formal office in the Trump administration to be formally charged in connection with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of potential ties between the campaign and Russian operatives during the 2016 presidential election.
In a statement released after he entered his guilty plea, Flynn said he acknowledged that his actions “were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right.
“My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel’s Office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country. I accept full responsibility for my actions,” he said.
The White House responded with a statement released by attorney Ty Cobb.
“Today, Michael Flynn, a former National Security Adviser at the White House for 25 days during the Trump Administration, and a former Obama administration official, entered a guilty plea to a single count of making a false statement to the FBI,” Cobb said.
“The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year,” the White House statement continued. “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn. The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”
Mueller filed the narrow charge against Flynn Friday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and the case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras.
Flynn arrived at court shortly before 10:30 a.m. Now that he has pleaded guilty, he faces up to 5 years and up to a $250,000 fine.
The brief filing signed by Brandon Van Grack, senior assistant special counsel in Mueller’s office, states that Flynn is being charged with misleading federal officials about several conversations he had with then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.
The retired general allegedly misled federal investigators about a Dec. 29, 2016, conversation in which he asked Kislyak to press his superiors in Moscow to “refrain from escalating the situation” after the Obama administration slapped new sanctions on Russia.
Flynn also purportedly misled the federal officials when he said he did not recall Kislyak later telling him the Kremlin had agreed to do just that.
Also cited in the short indictment document are Flynn’s comments to federal officials about a Dec. 22, 2016 conversation with the same senior Russian diplomat. Flynn allegedly made false statements about requesting Russia delay or kill a United Nations Security Council resolution, as well as his recollection of the Russian response.
A statement of offense distributed at Friday’s hearing said “Flynn’s false statement and omissions impeded and otherwise had a material impact on the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the existence of any links or coordination between individuals associated with the campaign and Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.”
According to the statement, the Russian ambassador contacted Flynn on Dec. 28. The next day, Dec. 29, Flynn called a senior member of the Trump transition team who was at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., along with other senior members of the team. The discussion focused on what Flynn should communicate to the ambassador about the U.S. sanctions.
The statement goes on to say Flynn and the unnamed senior transition team member discussed the potential impact of the sanctions on the foreign policy goals of the incoming administration, noting that they did not want Russia to escalate the situation.
Flynn called the Russian ambassador immediately afterward and asked that Russia respond to the sanctions in a reciprocal manner, rather than escalate, the court documents say.
Flynn then reported the substance of the call to the senior transition official, “including their discussion of the U.S. sanctions”
On Dec. 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that he would not retaliate in response to the sanctions.
The charging statement says the Russian ambassador called Flynn on Dec. 31 to say that Russia would not retaliate, after which Flynn spoke with senior Trump transition team members about Russia’s decision not to escalate.
Mueller’s team said Flynn also made false statements about calls he made in relation to a UN Security Council resolution submitted by Egypt on Dec. 21, 2016 concerning Israeli settlements, which the UN was scheduled to vote on the next day.
In its filing it says a senior Trump transition team member instructed Flynn to contact foreign officials – including Russia – to learn their positions on the resolution and sway them against it.
On Dec. 22, “Flynn informed the Russian ambassador about the incoming administration’s opposition to the resolution, and requested that Russia vote against or delay the resolution,” the statement says.
Flynn, however, told the FBI that he had only asked foreign officials about their positions on the resolution, omitting that he had attempted to sway their votes.
Flynn also filed documents with the Department of Justice under the parameters of the Foreign Agents Registration Act that contained omissions.
Flynn stated on the forms that he did not know the extent of the involvement of Turkish government officials in a project his company – the Flynn Intel Group Inc. – was working on for the benefit of the Turkish government. In reality, Turkish officials had supervised and directed the project, the statement of the offense says.
Alex Whiting, a law professor at Harvard University, says the plea agreement confirms that Flynn is fully cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.
“Just from the way the plea agreement reads, and the fact that he’s only being required to plead to one count with a low sentence range, that alone indicates that he has very significant evidence,” Whiting said in a phone interview.
According to Whiting, a former federal prosecutor and prosecutions coordinator in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Flynn’s plea brings the spotlight back to President Trump’s motivations for pressuring former FBI director James Comey to end the FBI’s inquiry of Flynn.
“If Flynn in fact has direct evidence on Trump, then that suggests that when Trump was trying to put an end to the Flynn investigation by talking to Comey, that he was looking out for himself, that this was obstruction of justice,” Whiting said.
But Whiting said the revelations in the statement of the offense that a senior Trump transition official had directed Flynn to influence the Russian ambassador and other foreign officials could flag another potentially serious development in Mueller’s investigation.
Neither the statement of the offense or Flynn’s plea agreement name the senior Trump official, but Whiting said Flynn’s admission that he took that direction and spoke to Kislyak and other foreign officials, indicates that other high-level Trump transition officials were aware of Flynn’s actions.
“Perhaps even including Trump himself,” Whiting said. “That would of course be a very serious development, particularly since Trump and others have disavowed any knowledge of what Flynn was doing.”
Harry Litman, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles, said that Mueller will likely use Flynn to secure information related to contacts between Russian officials and the Trump transition team, since Flynn was the point person for Russian contacts during the transition, as well as his short tenure as Trump’s national security adviser.
“Instead of having to connect the dots he just sits Flynn down and says tell me everything,” Litman said in a phone interview. “And Flynn has to because he doesn’t secure any benefits from his cooperation until after he has held up his end of the bargain.”
According to Litman, a former U.S. attorney, the information Flynn could provide might implicate the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But Litman said it could also implicate President Trump himself.
In terms of what happens next, Litman said it’s likely that Flynn has made a proffer to Mueller – stating generally the kinds of things he could tell the special counsel – that Mueller probably used to evaluate whether to permit Flynn to plead guilty.
Now that Flynn has entered a guilty plea, Litman says Mueller can formally question Flynn to prepare his testimony.
“Every jot and tittle of everything he knows is now fair game,” Litman said.
He called it “portentous” that a senior Trump transition official directed Flynn to conduct secret foreign policy while President Obama was still in office.
“Trump and others, if Flynn is to be believed, were kibitzing in the actual conduct of foreign policy with a hostile power,” Litman said.
Beyond violating an American political norm, Litman said that could also be unconstitutional.
“I think it breaks the Constitution itself, which says, the president — that would have been Barack Obama at the time — and only the president is the commander in chief for conducting foreign policy,” he explained. “So that strikes me as a potentially impeachable offense.”
Flynn was fired by President Donald Trump after just 24 days on the job. At the time, Trump said he let the retired Army three-star general go for lying to Vice President Mike Pence.
Flynn was previously fired from his Defense Intelligence Agency director post by the Obama administration.